Forget the Bechdel Test: in this play from American writer Neil LaBute, the two female characters can barely scrape a conversation without a man present, let alone talk about something other than one. Their most substantial chat actually happens off-stage.
A companion to LaBute’s ‘Reasons to Be Pretty’ (which this production’s director, Michael Attenborough, staged while he was in charge of the Almeida Theatre), this comedy-drama follows the romantic entanglements of four friends in smalltown America as they struggle to define their lives.
In chronically indecisive teacher Greg’s fumbled, crowd-pleasing attempts at dating both his ex, Steph, and current girlfriend, Carly, there’s something sharp about our capacity to overthink our lives into emotional paralysis or seek comfort in situations we’ve outgrown. None of them, nor Carly’s ex-husband, Kent, can shake off the past.
But the flashes of acerbic wit in LaBute’s writing can’t disguise the obviousness of the plotting, as an unplanned pregnancy makes its inevitable appearance. Swearing isn’t daring, and the sense of déjà vu from countless sitcoms is overwhelming. Clichés abound as the dialogue hits predictable beats. Basically, this is ‘Friends’ through a darker lens.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But while Tom Burke does a good job of conveying Greg’s self-indulgent ennui, the play sinks under LaBute’s decision to make everyone else unbelievably stupid. Here, if you work in a factory or basically as anything other than a teacher, you can have no grasp of geography, foreign food or words like ‘latter’.
This is where Steph and Carly suffer, with Steph coming off worse. She’s given no agency other than her pursuit of Greg. And where LaBute paints her into a corner, Attenborough’s heavily signposted direction has Lauren O’Neil coming out of it shouting – flattening any nuance in Steph’s hurt at Greg’s relationship with Carly.
The revolving set is nicely done and the second half gets more interesting, but this play says less than it thinks and is hampered by its predictability and unconvincing relationships. There are plenty of reasons to be sad here.